Part Five - Thailand Travel Tips, Costs & Final Thoughts
Travel Tips for Thailand
Flashback: If you are not already induced into slumber by this lengthy epistle, you might remember somewhere near the beginning I made reference to the issues of hotel bookings for Thailand over peak season. Well, other than the cheeky Gala dinner thing (and apologies for bashing it to death ;^) many hotels and resorts have also got the “3 day minimum stay” sting, er, thing going for the holidays. Fook! We got lucky with the Indigo Pearl when we were able to buy it through Travelocity (the Asian sites were only selling the 3 day stays) and were able to book it for one night only – it might have helped that we arrived Dec 21, whereas peak season rates kicked in Dec 22.
If travel tips are not your bag, feel free to skip ahead to the last bit.
The best rates I found for rooms in Asia were:
Note that if you book through these Asian retailers, you will find that Breakfast (ABF) is almost always included in the room rate. And what great breakfasts they were in the hotels we stayed at (Sino House in Phuket Town excepted, which was adequate, barely) – full buffet style, eggs, breakfast mammals, er, meats, (plus cured meats and cheeses for the Europeans), breads, coffee, juice, fruit. Also, I noted that it was much easier to book a room for 3 people on these Asian sites – the ones listed below often will not even quote for the 3rd person, making it impossible to ensure that an extra rollaway bed is available for the reservation.
Also note that both of these websites require that you make a “reservation request” – you submit your details (including full names of all guests) and then wait 24 to 48 hours to get a confirmation from them. This was a pain in the arse when booking shortly before departure. Hotel Travel worked like a charm 6 months out, but I wuz skunked on all attempted reservations 3 weeks out from our trip, even though they were showing space available on their websites.
I have also booked rooms through:
They’re great – you get instant confirmation of your booking via e.mail. However, when you book through these retailers, breakfast is most often not included (and it is quite pricey at the hotels, as is all food, in comparison to the local Thai eateries). If you don’t mind going out in the morning to forage for food, I guess it’s not a deal-breaker, except when folks getting their big, beautiful brekkies included are paying the same room rate (or less) than you ;^) As I mentioned above, arranging accommodation in one room for 3 people is also often not possible through these 3 vendors.
My first choice for hotel booking would be to book directly with the hotel, via their on-line reservations system, so there is a way to follow up via e.mail to ensure rollaway bed is available/double confirm the booking is made/arrange transportation in advance, etc. – however, every time I went in to cost compare, the hotel sites were at least 20% more expensive than the internet retailers for the same level of accommodation, for the same dates. Bummer. I guess if they undersell the internet sellers, the internet sellers won’t sell them (try saying that 3 times, fast ;^)
Another good resource I found was Latestays.com– really some great discount rates showing there, but again with the “reservation request” thing, which on a last minute trip, would not be good. Bottlenecks I encountered were likely because I was attempting to book for peak season.
Then again, you could save yourself a lot of time and work and instead pay a bit more to have your trip booked for you by a travel agent (which I do about 50% of the time, especially on complicated dive itineraries). There is some comfort in knowing that there is someone to act on your behalf if, as Murphy’s Law dictates, things don’t go as planned. However, I would only recommend dealing with someone reputable and knowledgeable about the properties and boats they are recommending, and with a large enough clientele that they are able to secure good rates with the wholesalers. You can really get screwed booking through a faceless "discount" internet dive travel co. Just ask D2D's Fairy Basslet ;^)
Info About Costs & Some Final Thoughts
We would go back to Thailand in a heartbeat – we loved so much about the country – the kind and gentle people (no doubt due to their Buddhist roots), the wonderful food, the great diving, the stunningly beautiful islands, the ample tourist infrastructure, and the generally very reasonable prices for food, accommodations, transportation and diving.
As an example, the two day dive trip to Phi Phi aboard the Greta, which included 7 scheduled dives, 5 meals and overnight accommodation in a bungalow resort on Phi Phi was $195 per person. I thought that was a deal, especially as I booked it over New Year’s where we were looking to shell out at least $150 per person for some ghastly gala dinner, plus peak season room rates, if we booked ourselves into a resort/hotel. The Junk live-aboard (5 days of diving, 6 nights), with 15% early booking discount (minimum 3 months out), was about $1500 per person (double cabin) and about $1100 per person for triple or quad cabin. Park fees are extra. The Junk does not currently upcharge for Christmas or New Year’s trips. I would not be surprised if the Greta did in coming years - I suspect we got our deal because no one really focussed on a possible resort upcharge at time of booking.
I believe the Junk is a great value and experience for the cost, and we hope one day to do it again. On our trip, there were many repeat customers. It is a very friendly, casual, fun boat with a great, energetic crew who serve up some mighty fine diving in a very safe fashion. Some of the conditions we encountered were challenging, but it is my opinion that even newer divers should be able to manage and enjoy this fabulous diving, especially under the care of such fine Divemasters.
However, we would avoid traveling again to Thailand over Christmas. It was a veritable zoo. We figured out it would be busy when I started to book connect-the-dots accommodations and flights 3 months out and everything was full. It was reinforced when we walked out onto Karon Beach mid-morning and were stunned by the sea of people.
If we were to go back, Phuket is not on the top of my list of Thai destinations – there are so many interesting parts of the country to explore that have not been so rampantly over-developed – but, as far as I know, it is necessary to transit through Phuket to get on most live-aboard or day boats to the good diving in the Andaman Sea. I'd plan to tack on at least a day or two on the front end to make sure you and your luggage arrive, even with delay, in time for boat departure.
I would not hesitate to recommend the Indigo Pearl and Centara Villas Resort at Karon Beach as Phuket hotel options, and The Junk as a live-aboard dive operation. I would also not hesitate to recommend the good guys at Siam Dive ‘n Sail as very good dive travel agents for the area for booking boats (other than The Junk), and their comprehensive website is an excellent resource about Phuket. I can also recommend the Greta as a safe vessel, with good crew, although don’t expect the kind of experience you might get with a boutique six pack dive op in, say, Cozumel, and bring yer own regs ;^)
If we were to do it again (and we’d like to) we would plan to go sometime either in early December, or sometime from January to early May, which is the dry season and when all options and locations are available to dive. During the wet season, diving is somewhat restricted due to prevailing winds and weather, though you can get some blazing good deals on land accommodations.
You can dive the Similans, Richelieu Rock etc from boats that are heading up to Myanmar (Burma). If we did it again, we would opt for one of these trips, as in addition to doing some of the best Thai diving, the boats go into areas that are much more remote and therefore less inundated with divers. The Ocean Rover, though spendy, is apparently the boat to go to for this itinerary.
And we would go back to Phi Phi again and stay there for a while – doing day dive ops to the many great sites that are just a short boat ride away.
© Judy G 2008